Sunday, May 3, 2015

7 Hauntings - Night 1: Paranormal Activity

No intro comments... just been wanting to watch these movies again. So enjoy as I delve into every single Paranormal Activity movie released so far.

History: Filmed with a super small budget of $15,000, the writer and director, Oren Peli, filmed the entire movie with an HD home video camera in his own house. He did this to focus on realism over action and gore. While it was released to the world in 2009, it was filmed and toured festivals in 2007. It was a big success but still bounced around for a couple years. It wouldn't get major attention until the previously mentioned 2009 when Paramount picked it up for $350,000.
However it wasn't a Cinderella story from there. Before Paramount bought it, Dreamworks was interested in the IP, intending to remake it with Peli in the director's chair again with a bigger budget. However during one particular screening people kept leaving in the middle of it. Not because it was bombing, but because people were getting so scared. This made it clear a remake was unnecessary and a bad idea overall.
To test the waters it got very limited screenings, mostly in and around college towns. It was so successful that many later limited screenings would sell out quickly. Then, as a first of it's kind, people could go online and "Demand It!" And if their city got enough attention it would be brought to their town. Eventually it was released nationwide because it was getting so much attention. But some lucky ones got to see it before others because their city was big enough.
The version seen in theatres was not what hit the film festivals, though. Many endings were filmed, most of which weren't that different from one another, but in the end there are three endings of note. The original festival ending, the theatrical ending, and the alternate theatrical ending. The theatrical ending being the only one that leaves the franchise open to a sequel.
Paranormal Activity is one of the most well received horror films of recent time. It was critically and financially a success. It is also one of the most profitable independent films ever made. A $15,000 production that made nearly $200 million worldwide.

Personal History: I was lucky enough to be home for the holidays (I want to say Thanksgiving) when this movie was still in limited release. Meaning I saw it in a packed house and then bragged to my friends back at college before they got to see it. I loved this movie from the start and have seen it numerous times since.

Version I Watched: Watched my DVD copy but with the alternate ending, because I've seen the theatrical cut multiple times and want to talk about the different endings in the review.

Review: I am so glad I got to be there at the forefront when this phenomenon hit. So much hype and buildup that led to a packed house when it was still in limited release. I had seen things like it before but not quite like this. One of the best parts of the experience being going back to college and bragging about it, teasing that I was going to drop spoilers on them. Safe to say I was sold and this was not over hyped for me. My first viewing was in a packed house where everyone was freaking out at all the right times.

Now going back to it for this review I was a little worried it wouldn't hold up.

After it first came out I saw it multiple times, but the last time I sat down and watched it was easily over a year ago. I was worried that this most recent viewing would be a disappointment, thinking it may not have aged well or it doesn't get under my skin as it once did. Good thing I was wrong.
It did take a little time to get it revved up again for me, though, simply because I've seen it so many times. And knowing what comes next is a bit of a buzz kill in a movie like this since so much of it depends on what you don't know. It's all in the surprise of the non-jump scares that makes it so scary. Yet the experience, despite multiple viewings, is so solid and immersive that it still gave me chills during this most recent viewing.

The most notable is how well this concept was pulled off for so little money. When I first saw this I was boggled as to how they pulled off some of the effects they did with essentially no money. I can think of ways they pulled off the door trick or even the footsteps left when the demon steps in the baby power... but the Ouija board... Katie getting pulled out of bed by an invisible creature... how the hell did they pull that off on a shoestring of a shoestring budget?
That's what as a whole makes this first entry an instant classic of the horror genre. Working within a restricted budget is one thing. This on the other hand is like a modern day Slacker, El Mariachi, or Clerks kind of budget. And Peli was so damn creative with his work that he made something big studios couldn't dream of putting together. It's well paced, subtle, and damn does it deliver the scares.

I of course am a big fan of the subtle details and choices thrown in that effect the overall presentation. Like when a movie starts without a title screen. It throws you in without an overdrawn preview of what you're about to see while throwing famous names up, reminding you you're watching a movie. Not here. Paranormal Activity starts ominously with a title card against a black background that reads...

Oh shit that's creepy.

...or as the festival cut reads...

Even creepier somehow.

...and off they go. No music, no standard title, just "this is what is left of this horrible event." And I haven't seen a found footage film presented so well since The Blair Witch Project. In many ways this is done even better and that's because of the logic of the camera.

The found footage genre is tough because the filmmakers need to present all the key moments and plot points in a way that looks and feels like it was on accident. Where everything just so happened to be caught on camera instead of intentionally because this is a movie.
Now as much as I love The Blair Witch Project (personally I think it's a better found footage movie overall, but I digress) it has some shotty moments of "why is this being filmed?" If I were lost in the woods while shooting a documentary, there would come a point when I wouldn't even think to use the camera. Especially if it was the 90's and film was being used instead of digital video like we have now. Making lots of important moments taped when they realistically wouldn't be taped.
Paranormal, on the other hand, is about a couple investigating a mysterious, seemingly demonic presence in their every day lives. Going so far as to have themselves recorded while sleeping, and by extension recording everything they find out, even when they're simply discussing it. While there are a few stupid moments where you wouldn't think they'd be filming themselves it certainly has a higher consistency rate of "that makes sense" moments over "there's no way they would have thought to turn the camera on" moments.
My favorite being the stuff shot while they were sleeping.

Having only one camera to work with does add to the subtlety and creepiness because there's only one angle the audience can 100% rely on and the rest is the terror of the unknown. What is happening off camera that can't be cheated by simply cutting to another camera, or a security system (we'll talk more about that in part 2.) Making some of the simplest parts some of the scariest. Especially later in the movie when Katie gets out of bed and Micah runs out of the room without the camera and all we hear is screaming. So much better than actually seeing it.

I also have to say I like how delightfully straightforward and realistic this is... as realistic as this kind of story can be. The characters, while stupid at times, feel quite real and are well acted for this genre. You really feel their sense of terror and how they just want it to go away. There's no overdone seance scene and when a Ouija board is brought in Katie directly opposes it. It's just the people trying to survive a haunting and live their lives. Nothing more, nothing less, not much better than that.
And that simplicity, like the scares, tone, and everything else make this a more satisfying experience than most other titles. It has more weight, it has more depth, it raises questions that aren't always answered but in a good and scary way. It leaves you with mystery of what came before and what could come next.
Regardless of what came before and after in the canon of this story... this is easily the finest moments this franchise has.

Even the simplicity in the way the DVD is presented is fantastic! It doesn't have a fancy animated menu. Hell, it has trailers but it doesn't force you to watch them ahead of time. It cuts straight to a black screen with white text asking if you want to watch the theatrical version, or the version with the alternate ending. Regardless of how you watch the movie it ends when it ends but lingers on a black screen for a while before it starts rolling the credits proper.
If I'm not mistaken it didn't even have credits in theatres.
The presentation is brilliant. It all ends and lets you let it sink in. I'm so glad this wasn't changed for the DVD. I'm so glad it didn't have the standard DVD process of a million ads and a fancy-pancy menu. It kept it in tone with the raw feeling of the movie. It seriously made the experience feel more legitimate. Simple steps like that make all the difference.

Not all is great, though. There are two major problems I have with it and they sadly are pretty key elements to the movie. The theatrical ending... and Micah.
I'll save the ending for later.

Micah is a fucking dumbass and a terrible boyfriend.
So it's not just the fact that he's one of the main characters that he's a key element to the story but it's because of him the demon's power grows and eventually possesses Katie. When she tells him she's been feeling this presence he buys a camera to document the activity happening when they're not looking. A good idea to a point but then he becomes so obsessed with it he tries to get Katie to call the demon despite her not wanting to, understandably.
Any chance he gets he tries to make the scary stuff happen. Not to mention he refuses to slow down. Even as things get worse and worse he'll do stupid bullshit like scream "show yourself!" as if he's macho enough to fight a demon from Hell.
He walks and talks like the demon is no big deal and like it's something he can handle even though all the signs point to no on that front. Up to the bitter end when, spoiler alert, he's killed by Katie after she's possessed by the demon he has this mindset like he's going to somehow defeat the demon when there's been A TON of evidence proving they have no way of fighting it and that negative energy is what it feeds on.
In short, Micah is a fucking dumbass and a terrible boyfriend... but I think he meant well.

Then of course the ending.
The theatrical ending is sadly very Hollywood in an otherwise unique horror story. If you saw this in theatres than you saw that Katie kills Micah off camera, throws his dead body at the camera, walks up with a demonic smile and the movie ends for her to live another day as a scary possessed demon lady. The audience was freaking the hell out when this happened at my screening but I was less than satisfied with it. It didn't feel fitting to me.
Then I found out about the alternate endings. Both of which I like more but can't decide which I like the most. All of which are similar minus the very, very end. Meaning they all start with Katie possessed, walking off screen, Micah running after, and him being killed off camera.
The original festival ending shows Katie come back into the bedroom bloody. She sits beside the bed for at least two days. Eventually the police show up and she is gunned down.

And then this comes up which is both sad and unsettling.

The alternate ending you can watch with the rest of the movie on DVD is similar but different in execution, excuse my pun. In that ending Katie returns to the bedroom after killing Micah like in all the other endings. But here she simply walks up to the camera, slices her throat with a kitchen knife, and falls to the floor.

I prefer these endings because it makes it it's own story with no loose ends to tie up. It's simply the possession of a poor girl and this is how it all ends. The demon wins and an innocent couple die. Depressing, yes, contained, yes, keeping it from extending to unnecessary sequels, you bet.

But the ending they went with the ending I suppose is considered canon because it allows sequels with the same antagonist. There have been four sequels released since with another on the way. How were they?


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